Why isn’t Florida government making science education a priority?

An op-ed I wrote was published in today’s Orlando Sentinel.

Press releases issued by the Florida Department of Education are always overflowing with good news. Everything is great. Student performance is always trending upward. Our state government is doing everything right when it comes to education.

But the it’s-always-sunny-in-Florida mantra in reality has dark clouds that have lingered on the horizon for years and the FDOE refuses to address them or even acknowledge them. The state’s neglect of science education is the most persistent. A recent press release praised the narrowing of student achievement gaps on the annual civics and science exams. Unfortunately, that was the only good news the FDOE could scrape from the barrel concerning science.

The press release also stated: “Compared to 2021, students improved in Social Studies and remained relatively consistent in Science on the statewide assessments.” Apparently, more than half of students failing the 5th and 8th grade Statewide Science Assessment (SSA) doesn’t count as bad news if those results are “relatively consistent.”

Keeping in mind the SSAs were interrupted by the pandemic in 2020, the trend for the 5th grade test went from 55 percent of students passing in 2018 to 53 percent in 2019 to 47 percent in 2021 and finally to 48 percent this year. Meanwhile the trend for 8th grade tests went from 50 percent students passing in 2018 to 48 percent in 2019, to 45 percent in 2021 and finally remaining at 45 percent this year. It’s important to note that the 8th grade test results have never been over 50 percent of students passing in its entire 10-year history. (SSA results page.)

The most revealing way to look at these results is that this year the 5th grade test featured 52 percent of students failing, representing more than 110,000 students. The 8th grade test had 55 percent of students failing, representing more than 109,000 students.

In high school, the only science course subjected to a mandatory statewide exam is biology. The biology statistics seem better than the elementary and middle school science results, but a significant dip in the passing rate recently is worrisome. In 2018, 65 percent passed and then the next year bumped up to 67 percent only to fall to 61 percent in both 2021 and 2022.

To demonstrate a commitment to science education, Florida government needs to put real and meaningful efforts into recruiting the best science teachers. The FDOE creates an annual report listing critical teacher shortages. This year general science is ranked the number three most critical and physical science, which is a combination of chemistry and physics, is number seven. Science has been in the top three of critical shortages since at least 2017 and has been in the top seven since at least the 2013-2014 school year. The report also shows that statewide this year 1,976 courses are “taught by teachers not certified in appropriate field” in general and physical sciences.

That report gives a valuable insight into the health of our Florida teacher ranks. But it seems to be ignored by anyone with the power to make change. There were incentive programs in Florida many years ago: the Critical Teacher Shortage Tuition Reimbursement Program and the Critical Teacher Shortage Student Loan Forgiveness Program. However, they were discontinued around 2011. Reinstating them would be helpful.

Of course, the critical shortage report is one part of the bigger picture of teacher shortages across the state and country. In January, the Florida Education Association revealed that statewide there were 4,359 advertised teacher vacancies. At the same time last year there were 2,368. This year’s number is likely even higher because long-term substitutes are filling in for many positions, which is indicated in the critical teacher shortage data I mentioned earlier.

Florida needs a science literate population ready to take on current and future challenges and opportunities. Florida is experiencing record high manatee deaths, invasive giant snails, rising sea levels, COVID-19 variants, toxic algal blooms and Monkeypox outbreaks just to name a few high profile science-related issues. The space business is booming in Florida. The state’s Space Florida website proclaims “Florida is the Unquestioned Leader in the Global Aerospace Industry.”

Why isn’t our state government making science education a priority?

About Brandon Haught

Communications Director for Florida Citizens for Science.
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